RALCO, CHILE — The Bio-Bio River in central Chile runs through a breathtaking valley of jagged canyons, dense forests, fertile meadows, and snow-capped volcanoes.
It also runs through the ancestral lands of Nicolasa Quintreman, a Pehuenche Indian. And therein lies the final rub for engineers who for decades have felt their hearts quicken at the thrilling thought of damming up the Bio-Bio.
Next year, the Chilean energy company, Endesa, plans to begin construction of a huge, 570-megawatt hydroelectric dam just a few miles downstream from the land the diminutive but sharp-tongued Ms. Quintreman says her family has owned for 500 years. The dam's reservoir is to flood the lands of 100 Pehuenche families, so Endesa is seeking to buy them out.
But as she boils pine nuts and readies bread dough in her traditional smoke-filled cooking hut, Quintreman says, "This is my land. They can offer me all the cows and other goodies they want for it. The only way I'll leave here is dead."
The standoff between Endesa and a handful of Pehuenche Indians like Quintreman is feeding a boiling controversy pitting Indian rights activists, environmentalists, alternative-energy advocates, and ecotourism promoters against the giant Endesa. On Endesa's side are government officials - including Chilean President Eduardo Frei, himself a hydraulic engineer - and businessmen who see projects like the Bio-Bio dam as indispensable elements in Chile's impressive economic growth.
The Bio-Bio brouhaha has also spilled over Chilean borders, as international environmentalists and whitewater rafters have joined the battle. Even hydraulic engineers from the United States have chimed in with "learn-from-our-mistakes" tales about the drawbacks of big dams.
Plans to harness the Bio-Bio with as many as six dams have been on energy maps since Chile's 1973-90 dictatorship. One dam was completed in 1996 and is operating downstream from where the much larger Ralco dam is set to be running by 2002. Upon completion, Ralco will supply almost one-fifth of the energy needs for central Chile, including Santiago, where energy demand is doubling every decade.
"The energy-generating power of water is the cheapest way for Chile to go," says Adolfo Ochoa, assistant manager of construction for Endesa in Pangue. In response to critics who say the dam is unnecessary since Chile began importing natural gas from Argentina, Mr. Ochoa says, "gas is an important part of [Chile's] energy mix, but that doesn't change the need for Ralco. This dam figures in all the energy supply calculations for the next 10 years."
The political waters that Endesa is navigating are much more troubled than when it built the first dam. Since then, Chile has approved stricter environmental laws and new Indian-rights legislation.
Environmentalists say the Ralco dam would not only silence a river but also a number of plant and animal species, including six species of fish unique to the Bio-Bio. And they insist that electricity from the Ralco dam, located about four hours by car from Bio-Bio's mouth in Concepcon, could be replaced by other, less-damaging sources of energy.
Alternative energy forms
"I am interested in the environmental impact of this project, but it is also a fact that Ralco is anti-economic for Chile," says Juan Pablo Orrego, head of the Bio-Bio Action Group in Santiago. "Natural gas is just coming on, and thermal and solar power generation have hardly been touched."
A former rock musician, Mr. Orrego has been battling the damming of the Bio-Bio since 1991, when he accompanied an ESPN TV rafting crew down the river. "We were just maneuvering through the area where the Pangue reservoir now sits when someone from ESPN in the raft said, 'And to think all this will soon be lost.' I didn't even know," he says - but he went back to Santiago and formed the action group. Last year, his efforts won him the prestigious Goldman Prize for international environmental action.
To those who say he would stop Chile's recent economic and social progress, Orrego says his battle is about giving Chile a more sustainable economic plan than the current model, based on exploiting natural resources. "Instead of using up our trees and fish and rivers, we need to think about growing through education, information, and services like ecotourism," he says.
The Bio-Bio is considered one of a half-dozen great rivers in the world for rafting and kayaking, says Yerko Ivelic, who runs Cascada Expeditions, a rafting and ecotourism business in Santiago. By damming the Bio-Bio, he says, Chile risks losing not only the millions of dollars in tourism that the river already attracts, but also an opportunity for a "green" image in which the high-growth ecotourism sector could flourish.
"Already, the Bio-Bio is becoming known not as a river where you can do great rafting, but as a river where you could do great rafting," he says.
Last March, a technical review board of Chile's National Environmental Commission recommended against the Ralco project. But then the commission's director was fired, and in June, the board's negative decision was reversed.
Energy needs vs. Indian rights
Now the only thing standing in the way of the dam is Chile's Indigenous Law - and the dozen Pehuenche families that remain opposed to the project. The law prohibits the selling of Indian lands, but does allow them to be traded for other land, with the owner's consent.
Endesa has been working for two years on the relocation, spending more than $20 million along the way. "We knew this would be a long process," says Endesa's Ochoa. "These Indians have lived with hundreds of years of deception and we have to pay the consequences of that history."
So far, about 80 families have accepted the offer - and many have also accepted company jobs building access roads for the new Indian communities. "We're going to be much better off here. We're going to have better houses and we'll be closer to town and secondary schools for the kids," says Jos Mario Reyes Chihue, standing in the new farming community he'll move to downriver from Ralco.
Some of the holdouts act as if they are better Pehuenches, he says, but he believes there is nothing dignified about the poverty most Pehuenches live in. "They [the holdouts] are mistaken," he says. "They don't understand progress and they never will."
But along the Bio-Bio, some families who have accepted Endesa's offers are now rethinking. Promised tools and farm animals aren't showing up, they say, while others worry that lands they accepted higher up the river are snowed under much of the year.
Ochoa says Endesa has plenty of time - until Ralco's reservoir starts filling in 2001 - to persuade families of the company's good intentions. In the meantime, Ralco's holdouts are likely to force a Supreme Court showdown pitting Chile's Indigenous Law against the country's general electric service legislation, which permits expropriation in the interest of providing electricity for the general good.
Noting the importance of ancestral lands in Pehuenche culture, Orrego says the case "will be the final test. If the [electricity] law prevails, the Indian law is dead."
In any case, Endesa seems unlikely to persuade the Quintremans that flooding their lands is in their interest. Standing on a bluff above the foaming Bio-Bio, Quintreman's brother, Juan Henrique, says he remembers when only Pehuenches roamed the lands along the Bio-Bio, and his parents warned him that some day strangers would try to take their land.
"They told me then not to give in," he says, "and I plan to follow their advice."